A Roman Spa

29 January 2010

Paul’s last stop in Asia Minor on his way to Jerusalem with the contributions he had collected from the Gentile churches (ca. A.D. 58; cf. Acts 20) was the ancient city of Miletus, founded in the fifth century B.C. In Paul’s time, this was a harbor town on a peninsula jutting into the Aegean Sea, but today it is about 6 miles inland. Silting from the Meander River gradually built up the area between two modest mountain ranges so that it created a plain where the harbor used to be. This area has received a lot of precipitation lately (some snow but mostly rain), so today the plain is pock-marked with numerous pools of standing water and one easily can envision this lowland covered by the sea—as it was 2000 years ago.

Miletus was a sizable town in the Roman period, although not a major metropolis. The excavations thus far have unearthed several public works that convey a sense of the size and significance of the town in Paul’s day. These include a theater that seated as many as 20,000 people—about the size of Cleveland’s “Q” arena; the beginning of the ten-mile-long processional way or via sacra leading to the Apollo Temple at Didyma (the second-most important site for the cult of Apollo in the ancient world, behind only Delphi in Greece); a huge nymphaion (fountain) and other buildings relating to the harbor; and a public bath complex that was constructed about 100 years after Paul’s time by Faustina, wife of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius and daughter of his predecessor, Antoninus Pius. (Follow this link for a site diagram, or this one for a color version of the city plan.) The stadium, gymnasium, and many other important sites have yet to be excavated; in fact, probably about 90% of the city remains underground.

The Baths of Faustina represent one of the finer examples of this “genre” of public buildings. Similar to the contemporary American “fitness center,” Roman baths included facilities for various types of physical training and relaxation as well as opportunities to “network” with the kinds of people who might provide advantageous business connections. The center included six main areas: gymnasium, palaestra (which here is a nymphaeum), apoditarium, caldarium, tepidarium, and refrigerium. These last three areas were laid out in a U pattern.

  1. The gymnasium or athletic field—where one would receive training and compete in sports such as wrestling, boxing, vaulting, discus, and other track-and-field events—ran along one whole side of the building.
  2. The palaestra, an atrium or entrance area typically lined with statuary representing various local and imperial deities as well as city benefactors and native athletic stars, served as a lecture hall and space for discussion of philosophical and literary works.
  3. Passing through this palaestra, one next came to the apoditarium, the ancient version of a “locker room” lined with individual cubicles for undressing before entering the bath proper and then dressing again before leaving the baths. In Hollywood films that depict scenes in Roman baths, one always sees the customers swathed in bath sheets, but the literature of the period indicates that nudity was the norm in these interior parts of the baths. This room is probably where one could avail oneself of spa services such as massage and exfoliation before entering the sauna area or swimming pool. Whereas it is likely that the massage tables were stationary, for the most part it seems that one had to bring along the body servant to provide these services.
  4. The sauna or caldarium included a pool of hot water that served both as a hot tub and also helped create steam. The walls of the caldarium were hollow, forming a series of hypocausts or stone ductwork that conducted hot air from a wood furnace located either below the caldarium or in a small furnace room next door. Thus, the temperature of the sauna was controlled by a hot-air heating system similar to the gas forced-air heating systems that one finds in many homes today.
  5. Next to the caldarium was the tepidarium, the “lukewarm room.” The pool in this room was the proper temperature for customers who might want to swim, rather than simply to soak. Even if other parts of the baths were not highly decorated, the tepidarium often was filled with floor and wall mosaics and frescoes of various mythological scenes, images of water nymphs and deities, and other religious imagery. In this room, one could take advantage of the bath concessions to purchase food and drinks to be eaten while enjoying a relaxing conversation with one’s associates. The excavators of Faustina’s baths even found a menu listing the prices for various à la carte food and drink items, as well as an entire meal sold prix fixé.
  6. The last of the series of pools was located in the refrigerium, the “cold room,” so called because the water in this pool was cool rather than lukewarm or hot. Although the water was too cool for most swimmers, bathers would at least enter this pool briefly in order to close the pores opened by the hot steam in the caldarium and the other spa services. Especially in warm climes like Italy and other parts of the Mediterranean world, utilizing this pool last before leaving the baths helped one stay cool after dressing again in street clothes.

Among the rather unusual features of the Baths of Faustina are three that relate more to herself than to the building complex. First among these is the simple fact that she sponsored its construction, which means she had personal, discretionary control of substantial financial resources. Second is the fact that she alone is honored with the dedicatory inscription memorializing her largess; the gift is not connected with any of her male relatives. Thirdly, the accuracy of the dedication remains undisputed. While it is not nearly so common to find public works donated by women as by men, it is even less common to find scholars accepting those attributions rather than generating some alternative “explanation” that minimizes the woman’s contribution. Perhaps because Faustina was an empress, or perhaps because she is given no official titles relating to civic offices, her honor is upheld.

Advertisements

One Response to “A Roman Spa”

  1. tears4dido said

    BTW, the Perseus site has a plethora of resources for the Graeco-Roman world, so check it out if you haven’t visited there yet. Among other helpful features, there are some nice photos of this site and the ones that will be the subject of the next few days.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

The Bible According to McGinn

People, places, and other points of interest relating to the Biblical texts

%d bloggers like this: